Wednesday, January 11, 2017

2001: A Reflection

I was scanning through the channels this afternoon, and found 2001: A Space Odyssey, about 20 minutes into the movie.  I first saw this movie as a birthday present, either 11th or 12th I am not sure. Of course, I did not understand it then, and in fact still find some of Kubrick's scenes difficult to fathom.

On this occasion, I was struck by the optimism of the future of space travel.  To think that in 1968 when the film was made, America was on the cusp of landing the first man on the moon, an accomplishment all the more amazing considering the state of our knowledge of travelling in space and our ability to do so just a decade before that when we were shocked by the news of the Sputnik program.   I have no doubt that Kubrick, Arthur C. Clark, people involved in the film, as well as the men and women actively working in the space program, both public and private, were 100% confident that humanity would not only have a base on the moon by 2001, but would accomplish a myriad of unimaginable feats in the next 30+ years.  I would guess that a vast majority of them were greatly disappointed when the new century began and our actual ventures into space paled considerably with their expectations.  Perhaps it is natural for a pause to occur after such a momentous burst of progress.  If so, we can only hope that the visionaries among us who are working towards a space colony on Mars will be able to match the achievements of those who preceded them 50 years ago.

I was also struck by the cooperation that seemed to exist in the world among nations.  Perhaps it is my bias at work, but the idea that Earth's inhabitants might begin to view themselves as Earthlings, rather than Americans, Russians, British, etc, seemed to permeate science fiction at the time. The future, and man's relationships with each other, was presented in a positive way, a time to be looked forward to, and even as a legacy for our children and grandchildren who would benefit from the mistakes made by previous generations who preferred aggression and war as opposed to cooperation.

Did our expectations surpass our ability to be humane?  Did we forget the horrific lessons of the two World Wars which were founded in discrimination, distrust, and tribalism?  Or did we just get lazy and forgot that we needed to continue to work and strive for a future world where peace among its peoples was preferable to conflict?

It can be difficult to see one's own life outside the highs and lows of its actual experiences.  Similarly, it is hard to view the state of our country, or even the state of our planet without focusing on the details.  We are swayed by those who tell us things are worse than ever, and then offer solutions based on prayers to a deity that will vanquish our enemies despite the obviousness that an actual deity created those very same people we seek to vanquish and who themselves pray to their deity for our subsequent destruction as well.  Or we are impressed by the latest populist who knows the only certain path to correcting all problems.  Or worse, we stop seeking answers to why, in a nation able to spend almost $60 billion on its pets, we still have millions of children who go to bed hungry, have substandard schools, and lack access to health care.

Taking a bigger view means recognizing that we are on a path, both individually and communally, that has its origins in small bands of nomads living in caves.  A path that has passed by the days when thunder and lightning were feared and misunderstood.  A path that wound through centuries of leaders who claimed their rule by divine right.  A path that took humanity to a place where children were treasured as links to immortality, rather than farm or industrial labor, or property to be used for trade as if they were cattle or stock.  A path that only recently featured the right for one half of those born to be able to choose those who made the laws.

But, like all long paths, it is a path that occasionally meanders backwards.  A path that sometimes includes a wrong fork in which humanity is lost for a bit.

It is hard enough to know when one has chosen the wrong path, let alone understanding when a nation or a planet has chosen in error.  And there have been more than a few times when humanity has done just so.  But each time, we have collectively righted the ship.  And so, from the days when brute force ruled the day, and when every other human was an enemy, we have followed a path which has brought us to a time when laws temper the ability of the strong to take advantage of the weak, and diversity in race, culture, ethnicity, and perspective is valued.

Perhaps. like the fate of the space program after the heyday of the Apollo missions, we have meandered a bit off the path that I describe above.  But that is OK, as long as we recognize our misstep, and as long as we stop, look around, and evaluate the direction we are taking.  And then, like those who dream of a future that includes a rebirth in space travel, we will be hailed for our presence of mind by those who benefited when we turned back to the path that leads humanity to shed its cloak of nationalism in favor of a robe of unity.  



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